After two straight 7-1 seasons, Mike Whalen ’83 stepped down as Wesleyan football’s head coach to focus on his position as athletic director. Dan DiCenzo, Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator under Whalen, took over following Whalen’s departure. On top of having to follow up on two of Wesleyan’s most successful seasons in recent history, DiCenzo inherited a team that lost many important players to graduation. Nevertheless, DiCenzo and the Cardinals have been solid, holding a 4-2 record through six games, putting them in a tie for third in the NESCAC with two games remaining. I sat down to talk with DiCenzo about his first year as head coach, the new offense, and his thoughts on the season so far.
The Argus: You’ve had a lot of experience with this team, having served as Offensive Coordinator under Whalen, but working as a head coach must be a bit different. How has it been taking over the team from Coach Whalen?
Dan DiCenzo: I came from Williams with Whalen and have been working with him for 11 years, so there wasn’t much new about the transition. It’s been pretty seamless, pretty smooth… nothing is a surprise to us as a team or internally with the staff. It’s been great.
A: What’s been the biggest change since last year?
DD: Offensively, we’ve changed quite a bit. We’ve tweaked the offense. We have really good athletes on the team and we’ve just tried to get those guys the ball as much as we can. We rotate a lot of guys at receiver, running back and even quarterback, just because we have so many talented kids there.
A: You’ve also lost a lot of important players to graduation last year.
DD: We graduated 26 seniors and 18 starters, so we have a young group… only about four starters and six or seven guys who have played at the varsity level. But our kids are giving us great effort and working really hard.
A: Watching the games and looking at the box scores, it seems that there’s a different offensive plan each game. Why is that?
DD: We told the kids we were going to evaluate them every day and every week and we want guys that are getting better and are understanding the system, and we’re going to continue to evaluate. We came in with three very talented tailbacks—LaDarius Drew ’15, Lou Stevens ’17, and Jaylen Berry ’18—and our staff just thought that Jaylen was the best during the preseason, so he got the bulk of the carries the first game and then him and LD split carries the next game, but LD got injured. Lou was a great player for us last year and had a great week [against Bates], so we feel very comfortable with any of those guys.
A: After having Jesse Warren ’15 as quarterback for four years, you have a new player behind center. How has this transition been?
DD: Whenever you’re starting a young quarterback there’s going to be growing pains and stuff like that. Last year we felt that Gernald [Hawkins ‘18] came in… and played outstanding in our JV games. He was outstanding in practices and played a bit in varsity games out of the wildcat. He then had a great preseason and did a really good job and we feel he’s just been getting better every week. But the onus you could put on Jesse is different than what we can put on Gernald every week.
Mark Piccirillo ‘19 has also done a great job. He played a bit out of the wildcat the first few games… and he did a great job, so we’ve expanded his package every week. He’s a talented kid and as coaches we’re going to continue to evaluate and change things as we see fit.
A: You’re 4-2 so far this season, which you and your staff must be happy about. How do you feel going into these last two games of the season?
DD: We still think that we can compete with any team any given weekend. We’re really proud of our guys. Weeks two, three, and six we had to make some plays in the fourth quarter, both on offense and defense, to win… which is great to see and I think that’ll help us when we’re in tighter games down the road. We feel pretty good with where we’re at right now. The beauty of our league is that anyone can be competitive, and we feel we can win any week, but if we don’t play well enough we could lose in any week.
A: After losing so many key players, outside expectations were a bit low. Do you think you’ve turned expectations around already or do you think you still have a lot to prove?
DD: I think when people watch our film…they know that we have talent, but we’ve definitely had too many penalties. We’ve definitely made some mistakes with turnovers that have hurt ourselves. Defensively we’ve been undisciplined at times, but if you watch the film there are a lot of good things too. So we just got to continue to improve… and our guys have done that, and I think people around the league know that and know that we have talent, it’s just a matter of showing that every weekend.
A: Is there anyone whose performance has surprised you or who has improved a lot?
DD: In the secondary we’re starting Zac Cuzner ‘17 and Camacho [’18], both first-year starters and have had outstanding seasons. We moved Jon Spivey ‘16 from safety to linebacker and he’s picked it up very quickly and done very well. Shane Kaminski ’18 was a running back last year and we moved him to inside linebacker. We thought Shane would pick it up well and he has done an outstanding job. [Justin] Sanchez ’17, [Alex] Daversa-Russo ’16, and [Jordan] Stone ’17 we all knew would do well and they’re having great years playing just how we need them to play… Jude Lindberg ’19 has done outstanding and Grant Williams ’19 has been playing great. We didn’t expect those two guys to come in and make as much of an impact as they are.
On the offensive side, Joe Wilson ’19 has started every snap for us at center and he’s been doing a great job. He’s been a pleasant surprise… He’s even better than we thought… Evan Hull ’19 at receiver has been making plays when given the opportunity too. There are a lot of guys that are coming in for the first time and doing well.
A: What do you think are some potential areas where the team can improve?
DD: Penalties for one. We watch the film…and when it’s a great effort…or a questionable penalty we’re fine with those, but the mistakes that can be prevented because they’re just poor decisions—a late hit, making a block in the back when the play is well passed you—those types of plays we’re going to continue to improve on…because those will cost you in big games.
I’ve been very impressed by our offense without…all the opportunities that other leagues have to work with their players. The transition to the new offense has [allowed] our kids to make some plays. Now with that comes growing pains and they’re going to make some mistakes.
We’re also simply not as good defensively as we’ve been the past two years, but we’ve got a lot of potential and we’ve been getting better. However, last year if we made a mistake we had five or six all-league guys…where another guy would help out and hide that mistake. This year we’re just not good enough to afford to [make those mistakes], so we definitely need all of our guys on the same page on every play.
A: Anything else you want to say about your experience at Wesleyan and as head coach?
DD: The Wesleyan community…[has] been really great. I like being in a place where you’re coaching smart kids who want to do great things both at college and beyond, and kids that want to get that first-class education. As a staff we’re really challenging our recruits on that…if they don’t want to compete in the classroom this isn’t going to be a great spot for them. We love to see our kids be involved with other things on campus besides football, and we feel a lot of our guys are doing that, so we’re really proud of that. And we’re constantly talking as a staff about how we can improve our players’ experiences as student-athletes, and we think that also gives us the best chance to win every weekend.
This interview has been edited for length.